Depression is a serious medical condition. It can negatively affect a child’s ability to connect with family and friends, and it can also affect the way a child enjoy normal daily activities, attend school and concentrate while there, and enjoy childhood.
Having depression is more than just being sad, as depression affects the way we think, and how we see ourselves and our future. Along with the feeling of sadness or being irritable, it may seem that nothing is worthwhile and that things will never get better.
Depression can stop kids enjoying the things they normally like doing, and up to 3% of children and 8% of adolescents in the U.S. suffer from depression. Depression is significantly more common in boys under age 10 years, but by age 16, girls have a greater incidence of depression.
Working through depression requires time and can include relapses, but it helps to know what to expect during the process and when to seek additional help.
Causes of Depression in Children
Depression in children can be caused by factors or combination of factors that relate to:
- physical health,
- life events,
- family history,
- genetic vulnerability and
- Biochemical disturbance.
Depression is not a temporal mood, nor is it a condition that will go away without proper medication and treatment.
Understanding the Symptoms of Depression in Children
For kids the defining feature of a major depressive episode you are more likely to see is irritability.
Depression affects children’s thinking as well as their mood and behavior, and they may think they’re worthless or that things will never get better. Some of them may even have thoughts of suicide.
If your child talks about ending their own life or hurting themselves, it’s important to take this very seriously, as kids sometimes use this as a way of describing their distress rather than an intention to harm themselves.
Often times, the symptoms of depression are characterized by negative behavior such as irritability or whining, it becomes easy to feel annoyed and to blame or punish the child for their behavior. This can result in signs of depression being missed.
However, watch for these symptoms:
- low energy and difficult to motivate
- loss of interest easily in an activity they usually enjoy
- difficulty listening and concentrating on tasks
- negative comments about themselves
- withdraws from social situations, like no more interest to spend time with friends
- becoming pessimistic about situations
- become very difficult to please
- irritable, agitated, easily annoyed or upset
- seem sad and cry easily
- difficult to soothe
- either has no interest in food or tend to overeat
- problems going to sleep or staying asleep,
- waking early or sleeping a lot
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Compromised thinking or concentration, and
- Thoughts of death or suicide. This is relatively rare in youths under 12, but young children do attempt suicide and may do so impulsively when they are upset or angry.
What Parents Can Do To Help Their Depressed Child
Treatment can be long and arduous, but parents can help support children by doing the following:
- Encouraging daily exercise (Family walks count).
- Supervising any medication the child may be taking. It’s too much to ask a child to manage his own medication, not to talk of a depressed one.
- Make time to talk, as talking and counseling will help your child begin to open up and verbalize feelings. It’s your job to listen and provide unconditional support when your child finally opens up.
- Cook healthy meals, since healthy diet choices can help with the treatment process.
- Encourage healthy sleep habits, and provide activities that help them relax and de-stress.
- Provide play opportunities that they find relaxing such as coloring, painting, or playing with sand and sand toys.
- Find activities that are age-appropriate, interest your child, and are helpful in making them relaxed.
- Limit screen time, as technology is not helpful in making your child less depressed. Television or such technologies can often be an escape that keeps your child from further opening up about their feelings and emotions. Kids who have higher levels of screen time are at higher risk for anxiety and depression.
- Provide alternate activities to replace screen time such as hiking, crafting, drawing, constructing, biking etc. Some children may be dependent on their screen time as their source for entertainment that they may need you to participate in alternate activities alongside them.
- Promote outdoor time and physical activities, and encourage your children to take part in activities that especially involve nature. Participate in these activities with them to help them engage in the activities, and this can be an opportunity for open conversations to occur and quality time to take place.
- Help your child when problems and difficult tasks arise, and assist them by helping them break down the task into smaller and more manageable parts.
- Depressed kids often have difficulty taking on large problems and tasks. They find them overwhelming, but helping them by breaking down the task into smaller and more manageable tasks will help raise their confidence when the small tasks are mastered.
- Foster a positive home atmosphere, and reduce or eliminate negative attitudes, language and conversations. Also avoid constantly raised voices, passive-aggressive behaviors and any form of physical violence in the home.
- Make your home a safe shelter for your child instead of an atmosphere that is ever volatile in words, emotions or physically. Make your home a calm environment that makes your child feel safe and secure mentally, emotionally and physically.
- Help your child see the positive in life situations, and point out the positives in a situation rather than the negatives. Be a model of seeing the positive in life by resisting the temptation to voice negative thoughts that come to mind as your child can feed off your emotions and word. You should rather speak words that are uplifting, encouraging and positive.
- Believe your child when they talk about how they are feeling, and listen to them patiently. Take their words seriously, do not discount or minimize their feelings, and express empathy and compassion when they do open up.
- Keep watch for suicidal behaviors that may include your child researching this topic online, giving away their possessions and a preoccupation with death. Seek professional help immediately with the presentation of suicidal behaviors or thoughts. You can call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number 1-800-273-8255, for assistance.
- Help your child to live a healthy lifestyle, and encourage sleep, which is a very important factor in your child’s mood. According to Sleep Aid Resource, children between the ages of 3 and 18 need between 8 and 12 hours of sleep each day, mostly in the night.